FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Are you curious about digging into your own family history?

Maru Okazaki circa 1935 Santa Maria, Calif.
photo courtesy of the Okazaki family

Are you curious about digging into your own family history? Have you taken a DNA test and wondered, “now what?” Perhaps you’ve seen one of the popular television shows, such as “Finding Your Roots” or “Who Do You Think You Are?” Or maybe you want to go get your records in Japan. Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in America. According to USA Today, it’s second only to gardening. The new year is a perfect time to begin your family history project. But be careful; this hobby can be addictive.

Getting started in family history isn’t complicated. The most important first step is to record the memories of your oldest living relatives. You don’t want to lose the stories of your elders, especially if you have Nisei in the family.

Interviews can be conducted in person, on the phone, by e-mail or letter. Regardless of format, it’s important to get organized. Start with yourself and work backward in time. Write down what you know about your family members, your parents, grandparents, and so on. Be sure to include known dates of birth, marriage and death. Don’t forget to write down siblings, aunts and uncles. It’s easy to write this in a family tree format, commonly called a pedigree chart. There are many sample charts online which you can download for free; just Google “free pedigree charts.”

Next, plan your questions. Think about what you want to ask. There are plenty of resources online for tips and tricks about interviewing your family members. Of course, you will want to ask about their camp experiences, if applicable, but also ask questions about other memories, family traditions, school experiences, jobs, favorite foods, pets and religion. Be prepared with a list of questions, but don’t be afraid to let your family member go off track a bit. Consider interviewing clusters of family members, such as siblings. You may also want to do a series of interviews spread out over several days or weeks. If you need more help with interviewing techniques, consider ordering a booklet, such as “The Ultimate Family History Interview Primer” by Nicka Smith.

Once you have scheduled the interview, determine how you will record the information. Will you use a video or audio recorder, or take notes? Bring your pedigree charts with you, but also bring old photos or family heirlooms. You might be surprised how these artifacts spur the memories of your elders. Start by having your relatives look at your charts and make any corrections. Be sure to ask if they have documents, photos, or artifacts which you can copy or photograph. And bring a scanner or camera with you. Ask if they know any of the names in kanji, if they have names or addresses of kin in Japan, or if they know the kamon (family crest).

When the interview is complete, type up a transcript of the recording or of your notes. You will refer back to this transcript as you create your final project. That might be a book, a film, or even a Facebook page. Regardless of your end result, you will want to share your findings with your extended family.

What should you do if YOU are the oldest family member? Think of this project as interviewing yourself. Get organized, write down what you know, have a list of questions, find photos and family heirlooms. You might even ask someone to make a video recording.

We all have a natural curiosity about who and where we came from. Your own family tree is full of ancestors whose history is waiting to be discovered. Your ancestors laid down roots, and their story is a gift to your descendants. You have the power to bring your ancestors to life and the opportunity to help your descendants connect with their Japanese American roots.

In the coming months, we will explore a variety of family history topics including navigating and, ordering camp and vital records, understanding DNA, finding your koseki (Japanese family registry), connecting with descendants in Japan, genealogy travel, and more. If you are interested in taking a family history class, be sure to check the line-up at the California Genealogical Society. They offer a free “Introduction to Genealogy” class on the first Saturday of each month. If you have tested your DNA, or are thinking about it, there will be an all-day seminar in Berkeley, Calif. March 2 with “The Genetic Genealogist” Blaine Bettinger.

As you ring in the new year, I invite you to climb your family tree, to reach for the branches and to discover your roots.

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who currently serves as president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, please send an e-mail to The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Kyplex Cloud Security Seal - Click for Verification